We are alive, but we are neither aware of it nor present in the act.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Mindfulness is a term so overused, it no longer holds any meaning. It is meant to mean something different from what we are presently doing, but since it is so ubiquitous, it is like saying, more of the usual. What we are after is what Takuan Sōhō (1573 – 1645) calls the "unfettered mind."
Sōhō was a Zen monk, counsel to the shogun, and a friend to several master swordsmen. The unfettered mind is a path without preference or expectations.
The unfettered mind is relevant again because the broader culture has lost its engagement with the act of living. We are alive, but we are neither aware of it nor present in the act. Time passes, but we are never there to experience it. We are elsewhere, living on autopilot, whilst our conscious mind is engaged with achievement, money, and gossip.
The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master are a series of letters written by Takuan Sōhō to various swordmasters. It seeks to unify the spirit of Zen with the spirit of the sword, without losing the reader to Zen esotericism but to see Zen in all things.
Numerous situations can occur in one's life, and we may think we are different in each situation (professional me, social me, relationship me, etc.) but the unfettered mind is a unified whole. When we think from the point of view of each of our different selves, we think from our own self-interest, selfishness. When see as a whole, when we see no difference between us and them, we can clear our minds to what is right.
Since the industrial revolution and the advent of the assembly line, our worldview has become one of specification. Rather than seeing the world broadly, we only see specific functions and specific instances. (We need numerous examples to see how a rule applies in multiple situations. Usually one for each scenario. This is redundant but necessary for the specific-mind who lacks imagination and the ability to recognize patterns.) In this way, the world becomes fragmented into a giant jig-saw, where we each hold our individual puzzle pieces but are each blind to grander view.
Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments relates a similar idea:
Seeing the world as is, not as we wish it to be. Adam Smith continues:
This nearsightedness blinds us to the gap between the description and the described. We have words, but words are not up to the task of experience and awareness. Sōhō writes:
See the world without preference or expectations.
When we force and insist, our minds will resist. Pay attention to what you are paying attention to.
Sōhō writes of the mind:
If you force your will, your will can never act quickly enough. In times of conflict, you must trust in your practice.
The unfettered mind is responsive, quick to adapt, and ready to react. It is not rigid.
For this to occur, one must be present. There is only ever this moment. You can only read these words in the moment. To imagine the future applications of these words happens in the moment. Even to remember these words, you must do so in the present moment.
We are a culture of control, but Zen is of yielding control. The want of control only brings you further away from what you originally sought — peace.
In times of confusion, the Zen writings of Takuan Sōhō can bring much-needed relief. However, it is one thing to read the words, that is only one-half of the process. The gap between description and experience can only be bridged through meditation and reflection. This is the other half.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman – Takuan Soho (Author), William Scott Wilson (Translator)
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith
- All images are from Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue